London (AFP) – England fans are looking forward to a first major tournament final in 55 years as their team prepare to face Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley on Sunday.
Three years on from their defeat by Croatia in the World Cup semi-final, Gareth Southgate’s men overcame Denmark 2-1 in extra time at a rocking Wembley on Wednesday to reach their first European Championship final.
Italy were also pushed beyond 90 minutes by Spain in their semi-final on Tuesday, but won on penalties to keep their bid for a first Euro title since 1968 alive.
England stand just one game away from ending their long and painful trophy drought, which dates all the way back to the 1966 World Cup.
But Italy are on a 33-match unbeaten run, reviving their reputation on the global stage after an embarrassing failure to even reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
A Wembley crowd of almost 65,000 whipped themselves into a frenzy against Denmark with rousing renditions of “Sweet Caroline” and “Three Lions (football’s coming home)”.
The decisive moment came late in the first period of extra time when Dutch referee Danny Makkelie awarded a spot-kick for Joakim Maehle’s challenge on Raheem Sterling which survived a VAR check, and England held out to seal the win after Harry Kane scored on the rebound after his penalty was saved by Kasper Schmeichel.
The final whistle sparked scenes of pandemonium inside Wembley — hosting the biggest crowd in the UK since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — and across the country.
Flag-waving fans in London’s Trafalgar Square abandoned their seating to merge into a huge, swaying crowd after the final whistle. One group of supporters climbed on top of a double-decker bus.
For Denmark, defeat spelt the end of a fairytale run to the last four after the trauma of witnessing star Christian Eriksen collapse in their opening group game against Finland following a cardiac arrest.
– Vibrant England –
England have suffered semi-final heartbreak at major tournaments four times since 1966 and those agonising defeats have been etched in the psyche of English football.
But Southgate has overseen the emergence of a vibrant young team unconcerned by the failings of their predecessors.
“They’ve responded to what was always going to be a really challenging night,” Southgate said of his players, who had not conceded a goal until the Denmark game.
“We were so smooth through the quarter-final and relatively unscathed through the second round. We knew that at some point we were going to concede and we would have to respond.”
The semi-final was attended by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince William, who is president of the English Football Association.
Johnson, who initially refused to condemn fans for booing the England team while they took the knee earlier in the tournament, has not ruled out the prospect of an ’emergency’ bank holiday should England triumph on Sunday.
But captain Kane was determined to stress that nothing was won yet.
“It’s the first time in our history as a nation, getting through to the European final at Wembley, and it’s one of the proudest moments in my life, for sure,” said the forward. “But we haven’t won it yet, we’ve got one more to go.”
Italy reached their 10th major tournament final with a tense victory over Spain.
Sunday’s match will be the culmination of a remarkable turnaround in the team’s fortunes since Roberto Mancini took over as coach following the doomed qualifying campaign for the World Cup.
“Beyond the players, I’d say that everything comes from Mancini who knows how to make the right choices,” Italy legend Dino Zoff told AFP.
“For me, it’s not a surprise to see Italy in the final. I was convinced they’d do well.”
Midfielder Marco Verratti said the Azzurri were “climbing back to where they belong” ahead of Sunday’s final, also at England’s home ground after the pan-European tournament.
“It’s the dream you have as a kid as a footballer,” he said. “I think it will be an epic final, history-making either way.”
Away from the mounting fervour, UEFA has charged England over their fans’ behaviour after a laser pointer was aimed at Denmark’s Schmeichel.
Photographs in the British press showed the green light of a laser being pointed at Schmeichel’s face just before Kane’s extra-time penalty.
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